Caribbean Beat Magazine

Tobago’s hidden history

In 300 years, this quiet little island changed hands 30 times. Donna Yawching chronicles its colourful past

  • See if you can solve the mysterious inscription on Betty Stivens’ grave, which has puzzled visitors for more than 200 years. Photograph by Donna Yawching
  • Courland Monument in Plymouth. Photograph by Oswin Browne
  • Cannons at Fort King George. Photograph by Donna Yawching

One of the great charms of Tobago as a tourist destination, as far as I’m concerned, is its comparative lack of historic monuments and paraphernalia. The visitor is mercifully spared the obligation of trudging from statue to ruin, trying to absorb a plethora of names and dates, few of which – if truth be told – hold any real interest. Which leaves more time for the important things, like sun, sea and curried-crab-and-dumplings.

But despite its scarcity of formal historical sites, Tobago probably boasts more actual “history” than most of its neighbours. Originally inhabited by the Carib Amerindians, this tiny jewel was sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1498; and in the centuries that followed, became the sought-after prize in a protracted game of Musical Colonists that lasted 300 years. Historians estimate Tobago changed hands 30 times, more than any other Caribbean island.

Throughout the sixteenth century, the island and its inhabitants were left relatively undisturbed, as the Spaniards had bigger fish to fry. Though ships from various European countries occasionally stopped there to refit, or to take on food and water, the reputedly warlike Carib Indians discouraged settlement.

Still, these were the days when ownership of a territory apparently devolved to whoever (with total indifference to the Amerindian presence) stuck a flag in the ground and claimed it for their king. Even as the Dutch were establishing their (short-lived) first settlement, the British king was bestowing the island on one of his earls; and the Courlanders – Latvians, today – were making repeated efforts to establish a foothold. Even a small group of Puritans from British-occupied Barbados tried to set up shop on the east coast, but they didn’t last long.

The Courlanders are credited with having established the first real settlement in Tobago, in the Plymouth area, in 1654; and they built the first fort, overlooking Great Courland Bay. The Dutch, around the same time, settled in Roodklyp (now Rockly) Bay, in what is now lower Scarborough. Fighting both the Caribs and disease, not to mention occasional attacks by the Spanish based in nearby Trinidad, these little communities suffered high mortality rates; but eventually achieved enough stability for Tobago to became a source of exports, as the settlers produced crops of sugar, tobacco, cotton, cocoa, coffee and spices.

The history of this period resembles a low-budget movie: too many sub-plots and not enough extras. Forts were manned by a handful of men armed with a few cannons and muskets; their attackers, similarly sparse in numbers, crept through the swamps and thickets in the rain. Battles were often won more through cunning than force, fought under gentlemen’s rules, with surrender often chosen as a speedy alternative to carnage. For most of the 1600s, the Dutch, the Courlanders and the British squabbled over Tobago. Any successes lasted no more than a few years before succumbing to a rival power, or to the wider imperatives of European politics. In 1676, the French – also at war with the Dutch – jumped into the mix. In 1678, a peace treaty between France and Holland left Tobago in the hands of the French.

For the curious tourist, little remains to be seen from this period, since abandoned villages and forts quickly reverted to nature. But standing on the promontory at Plymouth, amidst the stone remains of a later British fort (Fort James), one can gaze across the wide sweep of Courland Bay and imagine how the early settlers must have felt, so far from their homeland, surrounded by mysterious tropical vegetation, diseases and other perils.

Three hundred years after the Courlanders finally gave up on Tobago, modern-day Latvians returned to Plymouth to build a monument in honour of their ancestors; they still make periodic pilgrimages to the site. The Courland Monument, unveiled in 1978, is a strange, asymmetrical artifact for which the description “post-modern” would be a kindness. But it is the only tangible reminder of a hardy and dogged group of pioneers and of Tobago’s earliest colonial history.

For much of the eighteenth century, Tobago was considered a “neutral” island, its ownership the subject of a lengthy dispute between France and Britain. The Treaty of Paris, in 1763, ceded the island to Britain, and that, finally, was the start of organised colonisation. The British constructed their first fort at Granby Point – little trace of it remains – and established a capital, Georgetown, on the site of present-day Studley Park. But within a year (1769), the capital was relocated to Scarborough. The town, according to historical documents, consisted of “a single row of dwellings, and warehouses on the beach”. Agriculture developed apace, powered by windmills and waterwheels imported from Scotland. Several can still be found – at Speyside, Arnos Vale and the Friendship Estate, to name just a few.

In 1781, the French regained control of Tobago; they built Fort Castries to protect Port Louis, their new name for Scarborough. In 1793, the British reclaimed the island, repairing and renaming both town and fort. Port Louis was renamed Scarborough and Fort Castries became Fort King George.

Recently renovated, the fort today offers the only substantial historical remnant of Tobago’s military past, and is definitely worth a visit. Unlike the island’s other ruined forts and batteries, Fort King George retains its officers’ mess, soldiers’ barracks, powder magazine, water cistern and prison cells. The officers’ quarters house the Tobago Museum, which boasts a tidy little collection of Amerindian and colonial artifacts; and a curator, Eddie Hernandez, who is a veritable font of historical information.

History of another sort can be appreciated on the scenic grounds of the fort, where some of Tobago’s most magnificent trees spread their branches above the slopes overlooking Scarborough. Massive samaan trees, at least 150 years old, dwarf the landscape, their spreading canopies a veritable universe of bromeliads and birdlife; majestic royal palms tower above the hillside walkway. It is the ideal spot to sit on a shady bench and contemplate, far below, the serene bay where so many grim battles were fought.

Under British rule, Tobago’s economy developed rapidly. The island soon became an important producer of sugar, a commodity much in demand in Europe. By the 1790s, Tobago’s estate owners had amassed large fortunes: “as rich as a Tobago planter” became a buzzword in London.  But the good times didn’t last long: in the 1840s, Britain dismantled the protectionist laws that had shielded the Caribbean sugar industry, and open competition from Cuba and Brazil, as well as from European beet sugar, caused a sharp decline in sugar prices, leading to the demise of Tobago’s sugar industry in the 1880s.

Unable to sustain itself, Tobago’s colonial government was abolished in 1889, and the island was annexed, kicking and screaming, to neighbouring Trinidad, losing its autonomy and resulting in the current twin-island state. Cocoa became the new cash crop, and vast untended tracts of these trees, sheltered by the flame-orange blossoms of immortelle trees, still blanket much of Tobago. Old cocoa-processing sheds can still be found, notably at Roxborough, near the Argyle Waterfall.

If few tangible traces remain of Tobago’s history, the island’s place-names are evocative of its chequered past. Names like Speyside and Glamorgan, Parlatuvier and Louis d’Or, hint at the origins of the settlers; Buccoo and Castara hark back to the Amerindians. Bloody Bay bears a legend, perhaps apocryphal, of a tremendous sea battle that left the waters crimson. Pirates Bay was a bona-fide haunt of the ruthless eighteenth-century buccaneers: there are still whispers of buried gold, but hopeful treasure hunters have thus far been disappointed. Moriah, Bethesda, Canaan and Bethel reflect the nineteenth-century incursions of the missionary churches, of which the Moravians were perhaps the most influential; invasions come in many forms.

So – here’s my advice to the earnest visitor: set aside a day to visit a fort or two, a waterwheel, the museum; crack open a pod of cocoa. Then – because it’s hot – find yourself a cold drink, a warm beach, some SPF 65 sunblock – and let yourself discover the real reason so many people fought over this tiny island for so many years!


Places of interest

Tobago Museum: Open Mon-Fri 9am – 4.30pm, closed weekends, except for pre-arranged group visits. The grounds of Fort King George, where the museum is housed, are open for strolling any time.

Tobago’s four other colonial forts are: Fort James (Plymouth), Fort Bennet (Black Rock), Fort Milford (Crown Point), Fort Granby (Studley Park): There is little left to see, except for the sweeping coastal views at Granby. You can look for the overgrown gravestone of a lone British soldier, who died in 1772.

Mystery Tombstone (Plymouth):
Another eighteenth-century grave, with a mysterious inscription that has puzzled visitors for more than 200 years. Try your luck at solving the riddle.

Courland Monument (Plymouth): 1978 memorial to Tobago’s first settlers.

Great houses: Few remain intact and most are privately owned. The most easily viewed are at Richmond, King’s Bay, Kendal, Grafton and Arnos Vale.

Windmills and waterwheels: Scattered around the island. Friendship Estate (Lowlands) is a fine example of a tower mill; Speyside offers the picturesque ruins of a giant mill wheel.

Old Cocoa House: At Roxborough, near the Argyle Falls. A working cocoa farm in the area is also open for visits.